Last April, a Chicago university pastor officiated the wedding of a gay staff member who considered her a close friend.
On Friday, Rev. Judy Peterson faces a church disciplinary hearing and might lose her job permanently. The events have highlighted tensions over same-sex marriage in a growing Protestant denomination that forbids it but also takes pride in its willingness to allow it’s members to hold opinions contrary to church doctrine.
Peterson, the campus pastor at North Park University and a well-regarded community figure for the past 11 years, was placed on paid sabbatical over winter break after a photo of the wedding surfaced on social media.
The Evangelical Covenant Church, the Chicago-based denomination that oversees the evangelical Christian college, also suspended her credentials. A petition drive calling on ECC leaders to place a moratorium on their guidelines forbidding clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings. The petition had more than 4,270 signatures as of Jan. 11.
The university confirmed Peterson had her ordination credential suspended by the church, but redirected questions on why to Evangelical Covenant officials, who did not respond to request for comment. The only statement they released reads:
“North Park University welcomes conversations around the topics over which there are differences of viewpoint. The role of the academy is to foster thoughtful, respectful discussion which allows for difference and accepts people regardless of viewpoints. Our campus ministries staff and others in student engagement and elsewhere in the university will continue to foster such an environment in the months ahead as we engage in intelligent discourse on difficult issues.”
The Evangelical Covenant Church sent an email Dec. 29 on officiating same-sex marriages.
The email said the church was “saddened” that LGBTQ people have been “pained” by the actions of Christians.
“Even so, we believe that a loving God lovingly instructs us, even through cautions and limitations. That belief informs the Covenant’s position on human sexuality and the marriage ethic,” the email reads.
Per the letter, Peterson had been asked in fall 2016 by a North Park alumnus to officiate his wedding. Knowing the church does not support same-sex marriage, Peterson asked the advice of a high-ranking Evangelical Covenant official who oversees and can discipline Covenant pastors, the executive minister of the Board of Ordered Ministry.
The executive minister warned Peterson her credentials could be jeopardized, the letter states.
She officiated the wedding in April 2017, writing in the letter that she felt it was her duty to stand with those who had been marginalized by both the church and the world.
“This was not a flippant decision done with disregard for religious rules, but rather a discerned decision to stand with my brothers in the same way Jesus has stood with me; in everything and at all times, no matter what,” Peterson wrote.
Nothing more happened until September, when a new executive minister asked to meet with Peterson. The church had discovered a photo of Peterson on the internet officiating the wedding.
While Peterson acknowledged that the church did not allow it, she said she was somewhat confident given the church’s history of not punishing innocent people.
Peterson’s suspension from her school position has prompted a number of reactions — including an email sent to church members by ECC officials, two statements from the school, and the petition that seeks the reversal or halting of “punitive actions” against LGBTQ-affirming clergy.
“We urge you to create opportunities for our entire denomination to engage in vital, respectful, and thoughtful conversations around human sexuality that includes LGBTQ individuals and their allies without fear of reprisal so we may become the healthy church Christ longs for us to be,” reads the petition.
Over the following weeks, Peterson met with the interim president of North Park, as well as church officials, who asked her to give up her credentials — she refused to do so, but the church provisionally took them away in November.
She also struggled with the university, which, she said, wanted her to resign from her position at the end of the 2017-18 academic year, under pressure from the church.
Peterson was officially named campus pastor in 2007. According to her letter, she has worked with LGBTQ students on campus frequently during her tenure. The president of the LGBTQ student group Queers and Allies recommended a reporter reach out to the email address Mission Friends 4 Inclusion had posted.